Sydney Opera House, Sydney.
25 August 2023.
Cameron Mackintosh’s critically acclaimed – yet contentious – a new production of Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg’s musical Miss Saigon opened at the Sydney Opera House on Friday 25 August. Conceptualised by the same creators of Les Misérables, – Schönberg and Boublil – the musical draws inspiration from Giacomo Puccini’s opera Madama Butterfly which revolves around the era and deplorable events of the Vietnam War in the 1970s. Direct from Broadway and the West End, the exhilarating and multi-award-winning production of Miss Saigon is a tragic love story viewed by 38 million people worldwide in over 32 countries and 350 cities. Although the production is adored by high-brow crowds, it has indeed raised many a brow due to reductive stereotypes, orientalism, racism, and objectification of women despite the attempts and implementation of well-researched iterations.
Set in Saigon toward the end of the Vietnam War, the storyline of Miss Saigon centres around the love affair between a young 17-year-old Vietnamese woman named Kim (Abigail Adriano) who has been orphaned by war and forced to work in a brothel run by the infamous Engineer (Seann Miley Moore). There, for the first time, she encounters an American GI named Chris (Nigel Huckle) with whom she falls in love. Their romance is cut short by the fall of Saigon, leading to the separation of the two lovers. For three long years, Kim embarks on an epic journey in search of her Chris – who has no idea he’s fathered a son – and has since married Ellen (Kerrie Anne Greenland).
Abigail Adriano’s career-defining debut as Kim embodied the character with the essence of naivety, desperation and a good serving of melodrama – which was required to keep up with the production’s demanding theatrics. Her ballads were impeccable, emotional and powerful beyond measure. Cleverly complemented by Nigel Huckle who plays Chris, their connection on stage was incontestable, as were his vocals and stage presence from beginning to end. A crowd favourite was Seann Miley Moore who played the Engineer who effortlessly brought the stage alive as the show evolved and as a result, offered a sense of respite from the heavier war-torn scenes. Capitalising off the American’s ignorance and corruption immersed in debaucherous numbers he aspired to maximise his gain. His Asian queer brilliance amidst certain scenes, prompted recollections from scenes in Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo and Juliet and Moulin Rouge – does “Young Hearts Run Free” come to mind? Kerrie Anne Greenland as Ellen was exceptional, and her uninhibited range left the viewer needing more.
The musical spectacle delved into themes of passion, love and sacrifice amidst the devastating impacts of war, threats of violence and lasting destruction. With a cast of 42, Broadway favourites scores included “The Heat is On in Saigon,” “I Still Believe,” “The Movie in My Mind,” “Last Night of the World” and “American Dream.”
The production has been praised for Best Musical, Best Director and Best Designer amongst the Critics Circle. The commercial success has resulted in numerous awards, and it’s incredibly easy to become deeply absorbed in the world-class execution across all aspects regarding production value. The score was exhilarating and emotional. The production, concept, and sound design were a moving and sonic masterpiece. The lighting direction by Bruno Poet mixed with projections by Luke Halls was exceptionally seamless, and created depth and texture beyond the boundaries of theatre blending one scene to the next. The set design and staging of bicycles circling the stage at the beginning, to the multi-levels of Dreamland, to the barricades that left locals desolate were beyond spectacular – as were the blinding lights, and ground-shaking sounds of a four-tonne life-sized helicopter that initially appeared to be an illusion, until it was revealed soaring above the stage elevated and transporting the US nationals away. Interestingly, the imagery of this scene with the American troops departing Saigon after its collapse portrays a reminiscence of the US troops departing Afghanistan and the unresolved devastation left behind mid 2021. Every detail was in every scene.
However, despite the world-class execution, the updated attempts to reframe problematic political aspects underpinned by the West vs. Rest, within the portrayal of the storyline, have continued to leave a residue of contention in its tracks. The discourse over the years continues between traditionalists with a post-colonial view and modernists who wish to make it relevant to today’s socio-political outlook. Critics identify the issues that begin with the conceptualisation first being created through the lens of white men. Secondly, it continues to portray racially reductive stereotypes by objectifying Asian women, and thirdly (and not finally, there is more) the fact that it has taken this long to see Asian-Australian performers debut in lead roles.
Albeit the debates, the discourse amongst theatre critics raise thought-provoking and indeed relevant questions. The production is a visual and moving masterpiece, and the talent that has been perfectly cast – they were simply spectacular! Miss Saigon is truly a world-class spectacle to be enjoyed!
Miss Saigon is playing at the Sydney Opera House through 13 October. For tickets and more information, visit www.sydneyoperahouse.com/opera-australia/2023-season/miss-saigon.
By Renata Ogayar of Dance Informa.